We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Wayne Wang was on native turf when he took a film crew to Hong Kong in the waning days of British rule to shoot his new film, Chinese Box. Still, the director of Chan Is Missing, Dim Sum, The Joy Luck Club, and Smoke was carrying his American passport, a much-coveted item in the days of Hong Kong’s handover to China.

“I left Hong Kong when I was 18 to attend college in the U.S.,” explains Wang by phone from his New York home, “but I’ve gone back over the years. My parents were there until 1989, my wife was working there for a while, and I have a lot of friends there.”

Although Wang is best known for films set in American Chinatowns, Chinese Box is not the first movie he’s shot in Hong Kong. A decade ago, he made the controversial (and little-seen) Life Is Cheap… but Toilet Paper Is Expensive there. The free-form gangster flick “wasn’t widely released because it’s a pretty experimental film,” Wang says philosophically.

“I’m a big fan of a lot of Hong Kong gangster films,” the filmmaker notes, and “of the very visceral style that Hong Kong filmmakers use. The one scene I really like in [Chinese Box] is the one where these gangsters are all talking about women and prostitution. Those guys in that scene are real ex-gangsters, as they call themselves. They kind of wrote that scene themselves, within the guidelines that I gave them. It was fun doing that. They were very good; they were very natural.”

It’s noted that in Hong Kong “gangster” and “filmmaker” have not always been mutually exclusive terms. “The lines get a little blurry in Hong Kong,” Wang admits. “But now they all say they’re not gangsters.”

Chinese Box is hardly a gangster film. It follows three characters during the run-up to the handover: An aristocratic Brit (Jeremy Irons), an elegant Chinese émigrée (Gong Li), and a scrappy Hong Kong native (Maggie Cheung). Wang says that he didn’t initially intend that the three players personify the artistic styles of their respective homes.

“The Gong Li character needs to be from China, the Maggie character needs to be born in Hong Kong, and the Jeremy character needs to be English,” Wang considers. “They were all in their own way the best actors from that perspective. It’s only later that I realized that the three of them are in a way the king, the queen, and the princess of their own countries. But that’s OK,” he laughs. “They’re great actors and actresses.”

The film’s lineup of writers is equally eclectic: French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, American novelist Paul Theroux, Hollywood scripter and critic Larry Gross, and Wang himself are all credited.

“Paul Theroux and I went to Hong Kong to try to write a story for the movie. We did that, but I wasn’t completely happy with it, and we parted ways,” Wang recalls. “I tried to do something else in the meantime, and when I came back, Paul was not available anymore. One of the producers is French, and he said I should talk to Jean-Claude Carrière, who adapted The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is a similar kind of story. It’s about individuals in a dramatic political time. So I went to meet him and we got along very well, and we went from there. Later, Larry Gross came in, initially to polish the English, because Carrière’s English is very good, but very formal. But then he got very involved with writing more stuff for the Maggie Cheung character.”

An unalloyed version of Theroux’s outlook on Hong Kong’s handover can be found in his recent novel, Kowloon Tong, which he wrote after splitting with Wang. “He was quite inspired by what we did, and came up with his novel,” says the director. “Which is even a much darker allegory of Hong Kong.”

Chinese Box is partially a mood piece, and, to get the spirit of the handover period, Wang and his crew spent most of the first half of 1997 in Hong Kong. He remembers “a lot of denial on everyone’s part,” he says. “The English were trying to leave gracefully, the Chinese were making sure it was a big celebration, and the people of Hong Kong were just going along with it.”

Wang says he hasn’t been back since the Union Jack came down, but has “kept in touch with the media and some friends.”

Today, he observes, “there’s a different style of running Hong Kong, a style that is more sort of Chinese, that relates to connections, bribery. Things are less clear. The British never gave Hong Kong’s citizens any kind of democracy until it was really settled that they were going to leave. So they’re not any better. But at least I think the British were very good at providing a structure for business to be free and efficient.”

Now Hong Kong is subject to the shifts of the dicey Chinese economy. “One of the big signs that the economy is really bad,” he adds, “is when you see people making runs on the cake shops. You can buy these coupons for cake shops, and there were rumors that one of the biggest cake shops was closing, so people rushed to redeem their cake coupons. That’s a sign of how bad things are.”

His next film, Wang reveals, is

about a mother and daughter from Wisconsin who move to Hollywood. The shift of locales and themes is typical of Wang’s career, which has refused to settle in Chinatown.

“I’m a good chameleon because I’m not just from one place, one culture, or one style,” he says. “And sometimes I just instinctively feel, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that again.’ For example, after The Joy Luck Club, I didn’t want to do another movie about Chinese women or about the Chinese, or about women, for that matter. So I just sort of jumped into Smoke, which had nothing to do with Chinese and was more about men. I jump around, because that’s one way of keeping myself more honest and less bored.”

Wang’s peripatetic nature accounts for the stylistic diversity of his films. He is often freewheeling but can be quite formal. “I like to work both ways,” the director acknowledges. “Sometimes I like to work very loose because it gives me a certain freedom, but it’s also very scary. Other times I want to work with something very specific, very well-rehearsed.

“Chinese Box, interestingly enough, is a combination of the two,” he continues. “It was thought-out, it had a script, but we also kept it loose. Ultimately, I think for a film to be really good, you do actually need a really great script and yet at the same time [to] be open to loosening up on it. When you start shooting and the actors come in, you use [the script] as a blueprint but you’re also open to what’s there.”

Chinese Box’s reviews have been mixed. Wang, who is clearly not a control freak, is unconcerned. “I just tried to make a film that was important to me. I think I made a film that is quite personal on a lot of levels. I didn’t think too much about how universal it could be.”—Mark Jenkins